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Not Your Father’s History

Opinion | October 28, 2013

History is more than a set of facts. It is a philosophical claim that there is a shape, a process, an internal logic to the disorder of our existence. In Western society, our relationship to history—the way we conceptualize how the past implicates the present—has changed drastically over the past five hundred years. Today, historians study the past in terms of a temporal chain of cause and effect: one historical event has particular causes and particular effects that explain the following events. But people haven’t always imagined history in these terms. Every society constructs its own notion of what is considered to be objective truth, in terms of how it gives order and significance to the past. By understanding that even history has a history, the field can be a study of how humans relate to their pasts in radically different ways. At its core, then, history becomes a study of what it means to be human, and thus reveals how there are vastly different ways of experiencing selfhood.

Broadly speaking, Western society has held to three theories of history: the medieval biblical narrative, the enlightenment notion of historical causality and progress, and the modernist conception of history as catastrophe. The story, for my purposes, begins with the medieval imagination. Divine Providence, it was believed, had already prefigured events on earth with religious significance. The sacrifice of Isaac, for instance, prefigures the sacrifice of Christ. To explain, the sacrifice of Isaac foreshadows the sacrifice of Christ, and the later “fulfills” what the former announced. Benedict Anderson, Professor Emeritus of International Studies at Cornell University, sums up the medieval attitude in that “a connection is established between two events which are linked neither temporally nor casually…It can be established only if both occurrences are vertically linked to Divine Providence.” The present, then, is not a link in an “earthly chain of events,” as Anderson puts it, but representative of something eternal—God’s providence.

The spiritual autobiographies of the Puritans are steeped with this outlook. In Mary Rowlandson’s narrative of captivity, for instance, the Native Americans raid her town, murder her six-year old daughter, hold her and her other children hostage, and nearly starve her. Yet, she does not view her captivity as the result of the historical chain of events that pitted the English settlers against the indigenous people of America. She insists, instead, that it is the result of God’s providence, as God tests her faith and, against all odds, seeks to show her that He is indeed good. This type of event is prefigured in the Bible by the captivity of the Jewish people to the Egyptians or the parable of Job. According to this mindset, events on Earth—our history—are important only as parallels to the biblical narrative that God has given us. It’s unsurprising, then, that the clock and the calendar were of little significance to the medieval mind.

The Renaissance and the Enlightenment marked a rupture in this medieval mindset. The scientific notion of cause and effect put an emphasis on the concept of temporality, or the aforementioned calendar and the clock. Through this paradigm, each event is the result of what precedes it and the cause of the following event—A leads to B leads to C. German philosopher Walter Benjamin referred to the idea as “homogenous, empty time.” This means that time exists as an endless phenomenon that can never be “filled,” in contrast with the biblical narrative where certain moments of time are altered or “filled” by God’s grace with religious significance. The Enlightenment’s calendar continually marches forward, regardless of what humans do; it is homogenous because it is not universally affected by any particular event. To quote Professor Dipesh Chakrabarty of the University of Chicago, “Events happen in time but time is not affected by them.”

The advent of the newspaper in the 18th century was a direct expression of this new temporal imagination. Readers could, for the first time, imagine thousands of other individuals connected by a set of temporal events because of the date at the top of each day’s newspaper. Politics, business, wars, culture, and other stories unfolded, and still do, as the result of a causal chain. The imagination that a newspaper requires of the reader—connecting disparate events from different parts of the globe by a calendar date—forms the foundation of our modern conceptualization of history. When students study World War II, for example, the important questions are “What are the causes that led to the outbreak of the war?” and “What are the war’s effects?”

Enlightenment thinkers placed faith in the idea that understanding this chain of cause and effect could lead to “progress” for humanity. Progress, not God, would lead humanity to redemption. Hegel believed each stage of history moved closer to a comprehensive, rational unity (Spirit) and that in the final stage, yet to come, the Spirit will become fully self-realized. Even Marx, despite his scathing critique of the status quo, believed that history moved through these stages and that, in the end, the proletariat would inevitably overthrow their oppressors, creating an egalitarian communist society. History, for these thinkers, irrevocably leads to some conclusion that resembles utopia. After the pointless bloodshed of World War I and the wholesale slaughters of World War II, however, the modernists and post-modernists articulated a much more pessimistic view.

In 1940, a few weeks before the Nazis invaded France, influential German-Jewish philosopher and cultural critic Walter Benjamin fled Paris for Spain. During his brief stay in Paris, Benjamin wrote his era-defining essay “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” which articulated his thoughts on how the promise of “progress” was justifying state-sponsored genocide. The most famous passage of the essay centers on the metaphor of the angel of history caught in a storm. History, Benjamin argued, was an inescapable calamity. “Where we perceive a chain of events,” he wrote, “[the angel of history] sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet… But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. This storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.” A few weeks after writing this manuscript, Benjamin, forced to return to Nazi-controlled France by Spanish police, committed suicide.

Benjamin’s hopeless pessimism represents a nihilism implicit in modern historiography. Events are part of a link of cause and effect, but history isn’t “leading” to anything in particular. There is no final phase of history, the modernists realized. History simply is. As much as we’d like to think we learn from the past, the past’s atrocities can always repeat themselves. The historian’s role is no longer to help humanity realize the end goal of existence; instead, it is meant to be coldly objective, discerning how historical facts fit in a chain of cause and effect that doesn’t lead anywhere in particular, as if the historian were a simple recorder of the past.

Charting the ways that Western society’s historical imagination has transformed over the centuries does more than simply give us insight on the development of modern historiography. It shows that each era develops its own normative articulation of how to view history, giving its own shape to what it sees are the internal processes of history. Rather than believing that our current understanding of history has finally become “objective,” it may be more useful to view it as an expression of our modern attitudes towards time. The study of the history of our historical imagination reveals that there are wide-ranging ways of experiencing what it means to be an individual in a society with a history. By focusing on this dimension of history—how selfhood itself, simply defined as our relationship to our past, society, and ourselves, undergoes ruptures and changes—history can be resurrected from the gray, detached, nihilistic study of cause and effect. This understanding breathes new life back into the monuments of the past by allowing history to be more than a study of facts; instead, it’s the study of what it means to experience history, what it means to relate to the past in different ways, and, more broadly, what it means to be a self in the world and how that experience of selfhood may indeed undergo change. At its root, history can be a project of humanism, through a quest to discover what it means to be human.